Wednesday, 28 September 2011


 Melancholia by name and absolutely melancholic by nature, the film is a beautiful examination of depression and of that one fate that befalls us all, death. While it is true to say that this is Lars Von Trier's disaster movie this is as far from a Roland Emmerich film as you are going to get. Melancholia opens with nearly 8 minutes of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde Prelude playing over highly stylised slow-motion shots based on famous art and still photography, cutting between shots of the films main players in striking poses and the planet Melancholia's collision with Earth from the vantage point of space.

Similar in a way to the opening of Von Trier's last movie, the antagonistically controversial Anti-Christ (2009), these first moments suggest that maybe Von Trier is in the mood again to bewilder the sections of the audience that were less than enamored with that film. What these opening moments do so well is present the destruction of earth as an awe inspiring event. As we have yet to meet the characters shown in these opening shots the collision is presented as impersonal yet oddly beautiful. While at first there is a sense that Von Trier is simply showing off here, it is only later that it becomes apparent that this opening is absolutely essential to the themes of the film. By showing the end of all life at the start in this manner, when we are introduced to the films characters the over-riding sense of inevitability casts a dark shadow over proceedings.

 The film is divided into 2 parts, the first being the wedding reception of Justine(Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) that takes place at the home of Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). At times reminiscent of Festen (1998) by Von Trier's old Dogme buddy Thomas Vinterberg, Von trier slowly drip feeds us the truth behind the happy fa├žade. While the characters that Justine finds surrounding her at the reception could be used to define the word dysfunctional, Von Trier shows surprising restraint in the way he handles this section of the film. He masterfully uses snatches of conversations and glanced looks to hint at the true personalities of the many characters on show, ably assisted by small but nuanced performances by John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, Stellan Skarsgard and many other well known talents. 

Throughout this section we mainly follow Justine, Von Trier slowly revealing her personal issues to us as she tries to keep herself together through the night. The most impressive impression of this section of the film is the way in which we feel the walls closing in on Justine. While many of those at her reception remark upon how happy she appears and how they want her to be happy, each of the characters inadvertently help to unravel her attempts at appearing happy as the night goes on. As Justine says to her sister “I smile, and I smile, and I smile”. Yet her troubles become more apparent as she looks to her family figures for answers and finds nothing, her hope falling away from her as the hollowness of the many wedding traditions and ceremonies, and the emptiness of the future she hoped would cure her becomes more apparent. Kirsten Dunst has always shown signs of being more than just another pretty actress, but here she really is fantastic, Justine's fragility and voracious self-destruction at times heartbreaking.

 The second section of the film, set again at John and Claire's mansion, sees the broken down Justine arrive at her sister's home. Here we see the true extent of Justine's illness, sluggish and worn out she is unable to do little more than sleep, requiring assistance to simply get from her bed to the dinner table. In tears she proclaims that her favourite meal “tastes like ashes”. When many high profile actors believe that simply fidgeting and staring into space is an acceptable portrayal of mental illness, it is refreshing to see acute depression expressed so accurately.

In this second section of the film the world is now aware of the planet Melancholia and its impeding arrival towards Earth. While John is incredibly excited at the prospect of this once in a lifetime event, Claire is overcome with terror at the possibility that rather than being a fly-by planet, Melancholia is destined to hit Earth and take away everything she knows. Charlotte Gainsbourg is as always brilliant here, expressing with great delicacy the contrasts of her character. Stoic and in control during the first section of the film, it is during this second section we start to see Claire's true emotional self. 

 The planet Melancholia can be seen to represent pure existential truth, and when seen in this manner the film is interesting as a study of how the different characters handle this truth. The pragmatic John can be seen to believe that the wealth and knowledge he values so dearly can protect him and he stays calm within denial, until his awareness of his own mortality renders him incapable. John and Claire try and protect their son Leo (Cameron Spurr) from the truth but by witnessing the behaviour of his parents and aunt he slowly becomes aware. It is interesting to note that the adults become aware of their demise not through John's expensive telescope but by using Leo's plain device made with a stick and some wire. This perhaps suggesting that it is through a child's innocence that we can learn to accept and live with the time we are given.

Justine, who has been paralysed by depression for so long, at first seems aloof to the pain of her sister when their fate becomes apparent. She has lived and battled with the sense of life as an empty void, she has been all too aware of the idea that you live and die alone that she seems to experience indifference when those around her finally understand how she feels. One scene shows Claire following Justine at night, where she finds her naked and bathing in the light of the oncoming planet. Here Justine is revelling in the potential of death, embracing it. As she tells Claire “Life is evil, we don't need to grieve it, no one will miss it. I know we are alone”. As Claire struggles and fights to escape the inevitable Justine tells her with a cold apathy that there is no where to hide from the their fate, from the truth of life.

The final scene is one of immense sadness but also beauty, an otherwise exquisitely bleak film about death hinting at a moment of optimism in acceptance. It is fitting that a now calm and serene Justine is the one to create this moment for those she loves. This I feel is the films greatest strength, the understanding that while everyone deals with life in different ways, we are mainly dealing with the same things. We are all struggling to find different answers to the same question, and all eventually face the same fate. Perhaps the only truly important question is how you face that fate and learn to live with it. As a character states earlier in the film “enjoy it while it lasts”.


1 comment:

  1. Awesomely well put review there, dude. Ladies and gents can also check out my review soon to be gracing though I'm sure I won't sum it up quite as well as Senor Cooper here.